In Canada, a robot recently completed a 3,700-mile coast-to-coast journey—by hitchhiking. Along the way, the talking, GPS-tracking “HitchBOT” garnered some 34,000 Twitter followers, a Facebook page, had its image broadcast in Times Square, crashed a wedding and did the Harlem Shake in Saskatchewan.

In San Diego, a robotic scout may soon accompany firefighters to help them map the interior of burning buildings using 3D imaging and heat sensors. The sensor data will paint a picture of the fire, including temperatures, volatile gases and structural integrity and keep watch for survivors.

“Working together both collaboratively and autonomously, a number of such vehicles would quickly develop an accurate augmented virtual reality picture of the building interior,” say the Bot’s developers at the Coordinated Robotics Lab at the University of California, San Diego.

In Europe, Mobiserv has an in-home, humanoid-looking social companion for elderly patients that offers up appointment and medicine reminders and encourages social activity. And GiraffPlus offers virtual caregiving assistance via a videoconferencing touch screen tablet built atop a wheeled cart that can be controlled remotely.

Steel Collar Associates hires out robots by the shift as contract workers, a kind of temp agency for robots. “The wages of steel collar associates are not subject to overtime rates or shift premiums, withholding taxes, unemployment insurance, workmen’s compensation, or any other fringe benefit,” the company’s website says. “Steel collar associates take no breaks, no vacation days, no sick days and no holidays. They never have an attitude problem or a drug problem.”

On factory floors, robots and humans are working side-by-side more than at any other time.  “A new realm of industrial robotics is upon us. Human-robot collaboration is here, on the manufacturing floor, viable and successful,” according to the Robotics Industries Association. “The ushers [of this new age] are a new breed of collaborative robots being integrated with humans in real-world manufacturing settings, free of many of the safety constraints required in the past. No more separation between man and robot.”

The New New Hire?

Robots are also getting cheaper, thanks to technological advances, putting them in reach of more businesses. “Seeing” robots with high-precision dexterity, which typically cost $100,000 to $150,000, could drop by 50 percent in the next decade and be infused with greater intelligence and enhanced capabilities.

“Globally, industrial robot sales reached a record 166,000 units in 2011, a 40 percent year-on-year increase,” write Carl Frey and Michael Osbone from Oxford University in The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization? “Most likely, there will be even faster growth ahead as low-priced general-purpose models… are adopted in simple manufacturing and service work.”

Frey and Osborne believe that 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk from some form of computerization. “Robots will likely continue to take on an increasing set of manual tasks in manufacturing, packing, construction, maintenance, and agriculture,” the authors write. Does all this new technology create jobs? The authors make no predictions.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center, which canvassed 1,896 experts across all disciplines on whether or not robots are costing jobs, found the group almost evenly split. Forty-eight percent envision a future flooded with bots in the workplace by 2025, leading to a variety of societal ills, such as increases in income inequality, mass unemployment and breakdowns the social order. The other 52 percent expect technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2050, despite the fact that many of today’s jobs will “be substantially taken over” by robots or digital agents. This group has “faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution,” the report says.

Make no mistake: The droids are coming, said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, earlier this year during an event. McAfee, arguing that robots are costing jobs, went on a little riff at the end of the event:

“They’re not going to come in a science-fiction form like we see in the Matrix or Terminator movies.  They’re not going to look like the Androids we see in science fiction.  But when we look at technological progress and the ability of technology, just in recent years, to encroach on skills and jobs and tasks that used to belong to human beings alone, it’s pretty overwhelming.  I don’t know if in 20, 30, 40 years we’re going to have computers that write our songs and write our novels and write poetry for us.  I sincerely hope we don’t.

“I like to believe there is something ineffable about the human mind, but the encroachment is absolutely undeniable.  And the one thing I’ve learned about technological progress after studying it for quite a while is never say never.”

Not so fast, counters Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “[T]echnology never has destroyed jobs on a net basis and it won’t in the future,” he writes in the MIT Technology Review. “Pitting man against machine only stokes antipathy toward technology and could have a chilling effect on the innovation and adoption of technology essential to grow our economy.”


This is one in a series of posts related to the event What's Next: Navigating Global Challenges with the Innovation Generation.

An Arabic translation of this article is provided here.